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Website honors events surrounding tragic airliner crash

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

Dan McGlaun created the website www.allegheny853.net to honor those that perished on Sept. 9, 1969, in Indiana’s worst airline disaster – and to share information about why it happened.

“I was consumed with it for like three years,” said McGlaun, who lives in Clayton, just west of Plainfield, Indiana. “Some things (on the website) are still not done. I would like to add more.”

McGlaun, who has lived in Indiana for 45 years, saw his interest spike in the Allegheny Airlines crash in northwestern Shelby County about 20 years ago after he earned his pilot’s license. Curiosity led him down the rabbit hole to find out why Robert Carey’s Piper Cherokee collided with the tail of Allegheny Airlines flight 853 traveling from Cincinnati to Indianapolis. The result sent both planes into soybean fields near Shady Acres Trailer Park off London Road.

A monument will be placed near the crash site Monday during a ceremony McGlaun plans to attend.

As a new pilot, McGlaun wanted to learn why a small plane and a passenger airliner ended up in nearly the exact same spot at the exact same time.

“You don’t want something to happen to you,” said McGlaun. “You get almost obsessed with learning everything you can. This one was weird. They didn’t have a fault. It just happened. With all the people that got on that flight (in Cincinnati), it wasn’t even supposed to be there.”

The Allegheny flight was delayed departing Cincinnati because passengers were being added because a TWA flight was delayed. Captain James Elrod waited patiently before finally leaving Ohio on his way to what was then called Weir Cook Airport in Indianapolis. 

Elrod, from Plainfield, Ind., and co-pilot William Heckendorn, of Newville, Pennsylvania, descended from 6,000 feet to 2,500 feet to prepare for approach to Indianapolis. Neither of them saw Carey’s small aircraft, which left Brookside Airport near McCordsville at 3:11 p.m. 

Carey, age 34, while still categorized a student pilot, was closing in on obtaining his private license.

Elrod, 47, was a veteran pilot that had worked for Allegheny Airlines for 19 years and had logged more than 900 hours in the DC-9 and had more than 23,000 total flying hours.

Heckendorn was the youngest of the three pilots at 26. He took to the air after leaving the U.S. Army. He had nearly 3,000 flying hours to his credit and was working toward becoming a captain with Allegheny Airlines.

Radar visibility was an issue in that part of Shelby County – a fact that became public after the tragedy. Small planes in 1969 did not have transponders and, generally, did not appear on the radar screens at Weir Cook Airport. There was no way to warn the three pilots of an imminent threat in the area.

“At that time, the radar wasn’t covering where (Carey) was,” said McGlaun. “As a student pilot, he had his hands full. His brain was occupied. You are really concentrating on what you are doing.”

Pilots are trained to “see and avoid.” In this case, all three pilots were focused on instruments and their planes and not maintaining a visual awareness.

“It was just a terrible, terrible coincidence,” said McGlaun.